Last month, the European physics lab CERN posted a curious document online: a simple, text-based file from 21 years ago that was, for all intents and purposes, the first page of the World Wide Web.
Despite its expansive name, the Web was started with relatively modest goals. When Tim Berners-Lee first connected his prototype browser to his prototype server in 1990, he was a researcher at CERN building a tool to help physicists share information. Just 20 lines long, with a handful of links, his pioneering page was an explanation of the Web itself, providing technical details, how-tos, and credits.
To mark the 20th anniversary of its announcement that the Web would be free for anyone to use, CERN has restored the site to its original URL. (The Web Berners-Lee envisioned was a changing thing, and perhaps fittingly his “true” first page was never documented for posterity—this is a snapshot as the page existed in late 1992.) It looks primitive by standards of the modern responsive, full-color, graphic Web, but it’s a remarkable artifact, not least because it still works perfectly in modern browsers. Many word processing documents from that era are difficult to decode, their formats readable only by software long obsolete.
Beyond its explanatory content, this page was also meant as a model—a working demonstration of what the strange new term “website” meant. To look at it today is to see the seeds of ideas from which the modern Web would grow, and also the ways in which it would end up surprising even its inventors.
Links lay at the heart of the Web, but they weren’t a new idea. By the time Tim Berners-Lee proposed what he called “W3,” researchers had already been experimenting with “hypermedia,” information organized as a network of links rather than as a hierarchy or a linear progression. Unlike Berners-Lee’s model, however, most of these projects were self-contained: You could load one onto your computer, but there was no way to link from one to another. Just as the Internet tied together the world’s existing local computer networks, the Web gave every page a universal address, making linking to others’ documents as easy as linking to your own.
A feature borrowed from text-based online discussion groups, whose new members would tend to ask the same questions upon joining. The WWW project offered a “Frequently Asked Questions” list, but also promised that the Web’s structure should make such pages unnecessary: “An FAQ list is really a cop-out from managed information. You should be able to find everything you want to know by browsing from the WWW project page,” it said. Things didn’t quite work out that way: FAQs remain a common feature of modern websites.
What’s out there
Fledgling systems like the Web struggle to escape a uselessness trap: They only work if readers log on and create content, but nobody will log on until there’s something to read. The Web’s creators broke this cycle by building “gateways,” programs that peered into existing information banks and made their contents visible in a browser. Gateways never went away—in fact, they’ve become more common. When you read a tweet on the Web, for instance, the Web page you see is generated by a gateway talking to Twitter’s main database.
The Web’s original group was small: Many of the same people built websites, wrote browsers for different computer systems, and offered opinions on design questions. Since then, the Web has exploded into multiple industries that employ vast numbers of people. But at the heart of it still lies Tim Berners-Lee, now based at MIT, and the World Wide Web Consortium he founded.
How can I help
To organize the Web as it grew, this page solicited users to maintain overviews of Web resources on particular topic areas. That early vision assumed the Web would grow into a system that resembled Wikipedia, or today’s corporate intranets: a knowledge base, continually updated and densely interlinked. Instead it ended up becoming host to any number of organizational schemes that its inventors never anticipated, such as the reverse-chronological stream of a blog.
On April 30, 1993, CERN released the World Wide Web software into the public domain, free of charge, for all to use and improve upon. A few months before CERN’s announcement, Finnish student Linus Torvalds released an operating system he had written under a similarly permissive license. Like the Web, Linux wasn’t as conceptually advanced as other systems under development, but the code ran, and it was freely available. Today, Linux powers many of the Internet’s servers, as well as every Android smartphone.
The Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mclaughlin.